Snooze and Lose

The news this month is bad news. Not a good way to start an in­spi­ra­tional col­umn for sure, but it’s a fact, and I’m talk­ing about sword­fish be­ing opened up for com­mer­cial long­line fish­ing off Florida’s east coast.

Saltwater Sportsman - - Editorial - Glenn Law Ed­i­tor-in-chief glenn.law@bon­nier­corp.com

Six­teen years ago long­lines were banned in the crit­i­cal habi­tat and nurs­ery ar­eas off Florida. The fish were in bad shape. The nurs­ery ar­eas in the At­lantic were lit­er­ally be­ing fished to death.

I re­mem­ber back then, just be­fore the clo­sure, a photo crossed my desk of a com­mer­cial fish­er­man in Key West car­ry­ing a 5-gal­lon white plas­tic bucket stuffed full of sword­fish pups, heads in the bucket and their tails stick­ing out the top. That was the state of the fish­ery at the time.

With the clo­sure to longlin­ing in 2001, the stocks be­gan to re­bound, and over the en­su­ing years, sword­fish be­came the poster child for stock re­cov­er­ies un­der wise man­age­ment. The sword­fish­ing off Florida gained a global rep­u­ta­tion, draw­ing an­glers from around the world. As well as the con­ser­va­tion vic­tory, the fish­ery cre­ated a sub­stan­tial eco­nomic en­gine. The ben­e­fits of elim­i­nat­ing pe­lagic long­lines came fast and cer­tain.

While not ev­ery­one goes sword­fish­ing, ev­ery­one can, with a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion of suc­cess. Any­one able to scrape up the cash for a char­ter — or put in the time learn­ing the tech­niques — stands a good chance of catch­ing one of the most spectacular big-game fish in the world. It’s a vi­brant fish­ery we’d al­most be­gun to take for granted.

This past sum­mer, the Of­fice of Highly Mi­gra­tory Species, a di­vi­sion of NOAA, granted a pe­lagic long­line per­mit to a fleet of six boats to fish the closed zones un­der the guise of re­search.

Any rea­son­able per­son sur­mises we don’t need to bring back long­lines to de­ter­mine the gear has a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on sword­fish. We’ve al­ready proven that to our­selves and ev­ery­one else. Even ICCAT, the stodgi­est of man­age­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions, has de­clared western At­lantic sword­fish recovered.

And sword­fish aren’t the only fish that suf­fer un­der as­sault from this gear. It’s indis­crim­i­nate, and long­lines kill sail­fish, mar­lin, sharks and tur­tles, along with the tar­geted species.

Rein­tro­duc­ing lethal gear on a recovered fish­ery is akin to climb­ing to 35,000 feet and then cut­ting your en­gines.

The ex­empted fish­ing per­mit has been granted for a three-year pe­riod, sub­ject to ap­proval ev­ery year. Ac­tivists on the is­sue are un­sure whether this can be stopped or not in the first year. It may be too late to change that. But the an­nual per­mit re­newals are not a given.

Whether you are a sword­fish­er­man, or would like to be, or may never get the chance, this per­mit­ting pro­ce­dure and pol­icy re­ver­sal rep­re­sent a threat to all our man­age­ment ef­forts. The ex­empted per­mit, vig­or­ously op­posed by the recre­ational fish­ing com­mu­nity as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Com­mis­sion, not only stands as a be­trayal of pub­lic sen­ti­ment, but it also may well set a prece­dent for rolling back any num­ber of other suc­cess­ful man­age­ment pro­grams in other places.

This pro­ce­dure, if in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized, could be dev­as­tat­ing to fish­eries we’ve fought to pre­serve and all the gains we’ve made. That’s why it’s im­por­tant now to raise our voices. Hack­neyed as it may sound, it’s time to call your con­gress­men or go on­line and reg­is­ter your opin­ion. The Billfish Foun­da­tion web­site (billfish.org) and the Amer­i­can Sport­fish­ing As­so­ci­a­tion both have a sim­ple for­mat­ted page to reg­is­ter your opin­ion. This is a crit­i­cal is­sue now and will be again, when the per­mit comes up for re­newal.

By Glenn Law

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